What History Education Should Be About…

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We may observe a trend of re-defining the purposes of history education in many European countries (i.e. UK, Poland, Sweden). After the Second World War the reports of UNESCO and Europe Council emphasized the need of changing the perspective in the history curriculum. This perspective included the vision of international citizenship (described later as global) and a concept of multicultural and peaceful societies. The debate is still going on. Some academics claim that history education is a vital component in citizenship education, others say that its role is overestimated. In the postmodern perspective we are faced with “the end of the past”, which is, to some extent, the product of consumption society and globalization.

The contemporary societies are future-oriented and the rituals, myths and the need of belonging have nearly disappeared. We need to remember that growing multiculturalism has been also a great challenge to school systems. The increasing diversity and pluralism brought about the new approach towards citizenship education and history education as well, as a part of it. The ethnic movements of the 1960s and 1970s challenged and changed the assimilationist conception of citizenship and introduced the multicultural idea of education. In these circumstances, there is no doubt that many educational systems need to be in the permanent readiness to reinterpret the aims of citizenship and history education in the context of global and multicultural challenges.

There are many dichotomies in the current debate on history education in the context of citizenship education, which imply complexity of the subject in question. I make an attempt to outline main standpoints of the current debates on teaching history1.

Firstly, there is a lack of continuity between future-present and the past in the history education. The growing body of literature suggest that young people are not interested in studying history because they do not see the relationship between past and present and as a consequence they do not relate this relationship to their lives (Noddings 2005). From this perspective school curricula should be oriented on the triad of past-present-future in order to enable students to make connections between historical and present events. Moreover there is a need to focus on the local, national and global history and to find a balance between them in the school curricula. For example, the study from Sweden suggest that there is more world history and global concerns in the curricula than the national. If history education may lead to diverse but united society, the necessity of the balance between national history and the history of ethnic groups and immigrants is required.

The second area of the criticism covers the issue of exclusion of the minority groups from the official history. For instance, Barton and Levstik (2008) write that there are vernacular histories preserved “in ethnic, religious, linguistic or other sub-national communities, and if not recognized in the ‘official’ histories that usually form the basis of the curriculum, these groups may fail to develop the very loyalty that schools purport to establish – ultimately leading to marginalization, disaffection, or even armed conflict that are evident in so many countries today”. If the feminist, gender orientation is being taken into consideration, the argument that history narrative is male-oriented and excludes women is often applied. Gloria Landson-Billings (2005) points out that official curricula „treat all students as if they were white, middle-class, natural-born citizens”. This approach may cause that the individuals who have not embodied these features may feel marginalized and probably never will be able to develop civic identity and virtues. Thus, from this perspective, there is a need to write history anew and to abandon a hegemonic point of view in our narrations. The marginalized groups should be transited from the periphery to the center of school curricula.

I would like to consider one more issue related to the subject in question. There is mounting evidence that immigrants in Europe are not so integrated as the policy makers wish them to be. It is no surprise that there is a higher rate of dropouts and poorer school performance among children of immigrants than native born individuals. We also know that Europe is getting bigger if we consider the statistical data on immigration. In this context, there is a necessity to (re)think the curriculum content to include, not exclude, the children of immigrants. The policymakers cannot expect that they are able to identify with the nation that they live in throughout the history of this nation. The heroes, symbols, myths, traditions, customs may seem “odd”, “strange” or just simply “foreign” to them. The next thing may be the gaps in public memory due to the rise of multicultural societies with multicultural historical narratives. I consider this issue as one of the most important challenges in the process of (re)thinking curricula content.

We need to remember that this changes in the approach towards school curricula are rejected by the right-wing politicians (neo-conservatism ideology). From the American, British and lately Polish experiences we could observe that policymakers, especially the right-wing politicians perceive the history of the nation state as the main source of national identity and as a very core of history lessons. The conservatives promote their own version of true history, which is usually limited to the particular nation state, western-oriented and which ignores or even attacks histories of the others. Moreover, those who criticize the homogenous narrative of history and question the glories and victories are accused of and labeled as being unpatriotic. Analyzing the political debate on changes in the national history curriculum in Poland, we could also observe that politicians from the right wing do not accept the “other” version of the “Truth” and they are strongly convinced that “their” version of the truth is the only one to be accepted.

Some progressive scholars, educators and policymakers acknowledge that history should not be perceived in the terms of national loyalty as conservative agenda wishes to do. What should be the main purpose of history education? The possible answer is: to develop critical thinking. Young people are accused of being ignorant in the sphere of historical knowledge and it is claimed that our societies suffer from historical amnesia. The chronological narrative method cannot develop critical thinking and does not provide knowledge about connections between the past and the present (Barton, Levstik 2008). There is a reason to change the approach towards persistent presence of chronological method of teaching history. One thing is giving only the facts and dates while learning about broader context of the problem is another. If students are provided only with the facts or information, their education may be superficial. Let’s consider one thing, as the citizens in the democratic country who possess the minimal civic consciousness, we usually use as many sources as possible to make reasonable decision. Thus, the students need many historical sources and many different approaches towards a problem to draw conclusions on their own. This is what history education should be about. It is about different sources and different approaches which students should understand, to be better- informed citizens in the future.

The methods such as analyzing multiple sources, problem-solving, conflict-solving, negotiation, discussion, drama, role-play are promoted in the process of learning history. Some academics argue that these methods are not often used in history teaching. S. N. Smith and D. Fairman (2005) point out that most of the textbooks present only facts and events and that there is little space for critical analyzes of the society dynamics. Gloria Landson-Billings (2005) shares the same view but she also claims that civic education lacks training in thinking and process skills as well as attention to global issues, it is focused on passive learning and avoids controversial topics.

Of course, we need to bear in mind that all of the abovementioned methods need more time and engagement. It is a great challenge when teachers are forced to spend more and more time preparing for tests and to spend less time to educate responsible citizens. Teachers may feel overburdened with the topics that they need to cover as well as with the expectations of what they need to accomplish (Thornton 2005). Time pressure is one of the challenges. The second challenge, which is often recalled by scholars, is lack of appropriate knowledge and skills to help students to understand the complexity of the world.

Let’s consider a case from Poland. The Polish government introduced the changes in the national curriculum of the history education in September 2012. It seems that the policymakers have taken the contemporary critics towards teaching history into consideration. They have paid attention to the teaching methods in order to teach students how to think historically. The policymakers rejected the approach where only facts are taught in order to introduce more skills. Although it does not mean that the curriculum is revolutionary in terms of chronological method, we need to remember that no resolution can change the working methods of teachers. The attempt was also made to link the past with the present and to introduce critical thinking, which is called as “creating historical narratives”. More attention is paid to the history of the 20th century, which has been very superficial in the former national curriculum.

The right-wing politicians, experts, teachers, scholars were against the changes especially in the upper secondary school. They do not approve of the history course being divided into non-obligatory modules and of the fact that the history of Poland is to be chosen voluntarily by students. Moreover, they protest against linking history with social studies, maintaining that the historical knowledge will be inconsistent and incomplete.

The proposals of curriculum reforms became the central point of the media debate after the hunger strike of the former members of the 1980’s opposition in Cracow. The oppositionists stated that the new curriculum leads to the “dehumanization” and they dedicated the strike to the God. Most of them were not experts, teachers or scholars. None of them were students or even parents of the children in the school age, they could possibly be grandparents right now. The leader of the oppositionist party “Law and Justice” Jarosław Kaczyński stated that “history education is an expression of respect to the ancestors, it creates a feeling of civic responsibility for national bonds and it is an essential element of general education in the contemporary world” and that “limiting history education is a postcolonial procedure aimed at making the Polish people labor force for the West”. The arguments were grounded in the premise that due to the changes of history curriculum Polish students will not be able to compete on the European market. For instance Ryszard Proksa, the chairman of the domestic department of education in “Solidarność” movement said: “the reform of the Ministry of National Education practically obstructs the Polish students from competing on European job market. Educational system in Poland has been totally destroyed today”. Of course, there is no evidence of the link between history education and the competences on the job market but the rhetoric of the right-wing activists was focused on the emotions instead of the facts. Moreover, nobody has referred to any study on the relationship between history education, citizenship, nationhood, etc. Moreover, the right-wing politicians did not present any solutions for history education in national curriculum.

From my point of view, history education should be about general education that would develop critical thinking in the next generations. Without this skill young people, who soon become adults, are liable to propaganda, manipulation, demagogy. Every day, each person faces multitude of news, information, and a capability to think critically seems to be essential for building our own perception of the world, which is not skewed by only one point of view. Neither am I in favor of teaching history only from the hegemonic, nationalistic, nation-state orientation, nor do I support teaching of pan-history disregarding the nation state, the nationhood, as well as ethnic or racial groups. I support the approach oriented towards the balance between local, national and world history; between different histories and narratives; between “our” and “their” histories.


Banks J. A., Diversity and citizenship education in global times, [w:] Education for citizenship and democracy, red. J. Arthur, I. Davies, C. Hahn, Sage, London 2008.

Barton K. C., Levstik L. S., History, [w:] Education for citizenship and democracy, red. J. Arthur,
I. Davies, C. Hahn, Sage, London 2008.

Bauman Z., Liquid modernity, Polity Press 2000.

Gounari P., Unlearning the official history: agency and pedagogies of possibility, [w:] Ideologies in education. Unmasking the trap of teaching neutrality, red. L. I. Bartolome, Peter Lang, New York 2008.

Landson-Billings G., Differing concepts of citizenship: Schools and communities as sites of civic development, [w:]: Educating citizens for global awareness, red. N. Noddings, Teachers College Press, New York 2005.

Noddings N., Introduction. Educating citizens for global awareness, Teachers College Press, New York 2005.

Smith S. N., Fairman D., The integration of conflict resolution into the high school curriculum: the e ample of workable peace, [w:]: Educating citizens for global awareness, red. N. Noddings, Teachers College Press, New York 2005.

Thornton S. J., Incorporating internationalism into social studies curriculum, [w:]: Educating citizens for global awareness, red. N. Noddings, Teachers College Press, New York 2005.

Daria Hejwosz-Gromkowska, ph.d, assistant profesor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, member of the Projekt:Polska Association, member of the Liberte! editorial staff.

1 See also D. Hejwosz-Gromkowska, Citizenship education and history. Setting the scene. In: Historia ludzi. Historia dla ludzi. Krytyczny wymiar edukacji historycznej, ed. I. Chmura-Rutkowska, E. Głowacka-Sobiech, I. Skórzyńska, Impuls, Kraków 2013.